life on Mars
(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech).

Discovery Points to Promising Conditions For Ancient Life on Mars

Scientists have proposed a possible origin of organic materials discovered on Mars that they say could help us understand whether life once existed on the planet billions of years ago.

According to a team at Tohoku University, atmospheric formaldehyde could have helped give rise to the formation of organic compounds known as biomolecules, which are a key component underlying biological processes.

The new findings could improve the chances of life having once existed on Mars, as well as the likelihood that additional evidence for it may be uncovered during current investigations at promising sites like Jezero Crater, where NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently conducting studies.

Harsh Living Conditions

The cold, dry conditions on Mars right now make it an unlikely place for organisms to be able to thrive, and a demanding place for humans who may undertake extended missions there in future decades.

Yet geological evidence suggests that this might not have been the case in the distant past. Around 3.7 million years ago, Mars may have possessed liquid water and an environment in which at least simple organisms could have thrived.

According to the Tohoku University team, formaldehyde might have also formed during this period of relative habitability on Mars. This is significant because formaldehyde is an important precursor in the formation of biomolecules through abiotic processes.

Modeling Early Mars

The Tohoku University team employed a computer model that allowed them to simulate conditions on the Red Planet long ago and see whether the formation of formaldehyde seemed likely based on the premise that the atmosphere then would have had an abundance of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

Based on their simulations, Mars would have had an atmosphere 3.6 to 2.8 billion years ago that could have provided enough formaldehyde to allow several different organic compounds to form. This is significant since it means there is a chance that organic materials found on Mars could have had atmospheric origins during the earliest geological periods on the planet.

Shungo Koyama, the lead author of a new study outlining the team’s research, says their findings offer potentially groundbreaking insights into what chemical processes might have been occurring on Mars in the past, which provide a clearer picture of the conditions there that might have been conducive to life long ago.

Building Blocks of Life

“Our results show that a continuous supply of atmospheric [formaldehyde] can be used to form various organic compounds, including amino acids and sugars,” the team writes in the paper, offering a potential origin for its presence on the Martian surface.

With formaldehyde’s conversion into ribose, the team reports that “a continuous supply of bio-important sugars on early Mars, particularly during the Noachian and early Hesperian periods,” seems plausible.

Future studies by the team aim to explore geological data NASA’s rovers have collected to find additional clues about the presence of organic molecules on ancient Mars, and compare their models with samples obtained from the planet.

The team’s recent study, “Atmospheric formaldehyde production on early Mars leading to a potential formation of bio-important molecules,” was published in Scientific Reports.

Micah Hanks is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of The Debrief. He can be reached by email at Follow his work at and on X: @MicahHanks.